On being ... a smarty pants

By Ingrid Sapona

One of the things I always read in the Saturday Toronto Star is the “ethics” column. I put the quotation marks because I’m really not sure why it’s considered to be about ethics, other than that the author happens to be a minister. (The only reason I know he is one is because I Googled him once. Whether he’s a minister really isn’t crucial to me or, I imagine, to most other readers.)

The column is usually about a topic submitted by a reader. The columnist’s responses often read like a cross between something you’d find in Dear Abby and Miss Manners. More than half the time I agree with him, but I often find it most interesting when I don’t agree with him because that’s when I find he makes points that give me something to think about.

If I had a complaint about the column, it’s that sometimes I find the topics kind of trivial. A recent column is a prime example. The question came from a woman who was irritated that her local grocery store keeps the baby formula behind the counter. She wanted to know if it was “wrong” of the store to make shoppers have to ask for baby formula.

As you might imagine, I found the topic a bit less weighty than other ethical issues (ok, I thought it was stupid), but the columnist answered it sincerely and, I think, with a great deal of aplomb. Indeed, he mentioned a parallel that I immediately thought of: the fact that many drugstores keep things like razors and disposable cameras behind the counter. He reasoned, as did I, that such items are probably relatively more expensive and that they are probably prime targets for shoplifters.

The columnist’s conclusion was that, though it may be inconvenient to have to ask for things kept the behind the counter, the merchant has the right to look after his bottom line and to try to deter theft. I agreed completely with his response and hoped that future columns would delve into something more interesting and ethically charged.

I don’t remember what the topic was a couple weeks later, but I definitely remember a post script that referred to readers’ responses to the column about the behind-the-counter baby formula. Well, it seems many wrote to offer an explanation for why baby formula is a high theft item: apparently it is used to cut cocaine in the drug trade. Can you imagine that? Well, me either! And it was clearly news to our minister cum columnist.

As a fellow columnist, I immediately felt bad for him for having to admit to missing what is likely the real reason for the merchant’s decision about the baby formula. But on a further moment’s reflection, I realized that most readers -- like me -- can easily forgive the columnist because using baby formula to cut cocaine is certainly not something most of us would know, or even dream of.

The post script also made me re-think the merits of the reader’s letter. Though I originally found her question silly, my reason for thinking that was because I was pretty confident I knew the reason the store kept the baby formula behind the counter. And, to be honest, I didn’t think it took a rocket scientist to figure that out.

But, in thinking more about it, I realize the woman was simply looking for an explanation for something that was irritating and that seemed senseless. I don’t know about you, but I do that all the time -- it’s kind of a coping mechanism. Often, once I get over my initial irritation, if I can figure out why a rule might have been put in place, even if the reason doesn’t seem that important (as compared to however put out I am by it), I find it easier to abide by the rule.

And, I must say, after years of practice and experience, I think I’ve become pretty good at figuring out the motives for different rules. So, when the woman complained about having to ask for the baby formula, I immediately figured out a reason that seemed obvious to me -- and I couldn’t imagine why the woman hadn’t figured it out too. But then, rather like a child being put in her place by an adult saying, “you think you’re pretty clever, don’t you, smarty pants?”, came the surprising news about the “other” use for baby formula. Indeed, the cocaine connection seems about as crazy as the idea of the underwear bomber, who we have to thank for the ridiculous-seeming rules about liquids on planes.

From now on, whenever I conclude that a rule is just ridiculous, I’m going to try to remind myself of the baby formula and cocaine story. After all, no matter how clever or worldly-wise I think I am, there are just some things I can’t even imagine….

© 2011 Ingrid Sapona


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